The art of cloisonné enamelling has been known in Japan since the sixteenth century and possibly earlier; but it has only been brought to perfection within the last thirty years. The few examples in the Nijō Palace at kyōto (erected in 1601) are small and extremely rough. Mr. Namikawa, the great cloisonné-maker of kyōto, will show visitors specimens that look antediluvian in roughness and simplicity, but date back no further than 1873.
Need it be explained that cloisonné is a species of mosaic, whose characteristic feature is a thin network of copper or brass soldered on to a foundation of solid metal, the interstices or cells of the network-the cloisons, as they are technically called-being then filled in with enamel paste of various colours, and the process completed by several bakings, rubbings, and polishings, until the surface becomes as smooth as it is hard? Enamelling has also sometimes been applied in the same way to a porcelain and even to a wooden basis; but the best connoisseurs condemn this innovation as illegitimate, because unsuited to the nature of the material employed.
Kyōto, Tōkyō, and Nagoya are the three great centres of the enameller's art, and each has developed a special style. The difference between the Tōkyō and Kyōto styles consists in this, that whereas Namikawa at Kyōto makes no attempt to hide the metallic contours of his lovely floral and arabesque decorations, his namesake at Tōkyō prides himself on rendering the cloisons invisible, thus producing either pictures that might be mistaken for paintings on porcelain, or else monochromatic effects also similar to those observed in certain kinds of old Chinese porcelain. The Tōkyō school performs the greater tour de force. But persons of true artistic temperament, who recognise that each material has its natural limitations, to move gracefully within which beseems genius better than overstepping them, will surely prefer the productions of the Kyōto makers, whose cloisonné is honestly cloisonné, but cloisonné with a wealth of ornament, an accuracy of design, a harmony of colour, simply miraculous when one considers the character of the material employed and the risks to which it is subjected in the process of manufacture. These risks greatly enhance the price of cloisonné ware, especially of the larger monochromatic pieces. The purchaser of a vase or plaque must pay not only for it, but for all the others that have been inevitably spoilt in the endeavour to produce one flawless piece.
The best Nagoya cloisonné differs from both the above. The great local artist, Kumeno, takes silver as the basis of his vases, and this is beaten up into the desired design, with specially fine effect in water and wave pieces. Wires are also used. The enamel put on is for the most part transparent, so that very delicate results are obtained by the silver shining through the glaze.
Books recommended - Brinkley Japan and China, Vol. VII, p. 327et seq.- The Industries of Japan, by Dr. J. J. Rein, p. 488et seq.